Open to your ‘legitimate concerns’

openbritainOver the past few weeks, I’ve had a series of emails from Will Straw and others involved in the Stronger In campaign talking about many things and occasionally asking my opinion on what they should do next. (It’s interesting, if unsurprising, that none of those emails was an abject apology for so completely bollocking up the Remain campaign, coupled with a promise to never go anywhere near political campaigning again)

The culmination of all this has come today with the announcement that Britain Stronger In Europe has now completed its metamorphosis into Open Britain which follows in the footsteps of More United by declaring it will be strongly in favour of good things, while condemning (but not too harshly) bad things. The email comes from ‘Joe and James’ which only makes me wonder if Freddie and Fiona were too busy to write it.

Their list of things that they want Britain to be open to is the sort of pabulum that no one can object to, which means they’re not actually setting out a political stance, just asserting that nice things are nice. openbritainpledges It’s not hard to imagine Leave campaigners putting out the exact same list of things and claiming that’s why we need to be out of the EU ‘so we can be open to the world’.

As ever, the devil lies in the detail. The initial statement on their website (because with all the campaigning genius we came to expect from Stronger In, the actual website isn’t ready to go on the day they announce their launch) begins with talk about needing to make the case for an open Britain and how important it is to make that argument in the Brexit negotiations that David Davis will be beginning any year now. So far, so bland, but generally good. Until we get to this:

However, we must learn lessons. June 23 was a moment of change. The strength of feeling is clear. Free movement of people cannot continue as it has done. It has to be reformed. This was not an expression of prejudice but rather a desire for managed migration and concern that rapid immigration can put pressure on public services and local communities. Britain must be open to talent, but with more ability to act if excessive competition in labour markets hurts our economy.

For too long we have ducked an open debate over immigration. That was true in the referendum campaign but it is also true of all the major political parties in the past decade or more. As a result, untruths have been allowed to prosper and a balanced debate never materialised, leading many to feel that legitimate concerns were being dismissed. This must change. Calls for reform must sit with a positive argument about the benefits that immigration brings.

Yes, it turns out that ‘Open’ Britain doesn’t actually mean open in the way that you or I might understand it – fighting to retain the free movement of people within the EU that we now stand on the brink of losing – but a rather a more flexible definition of ‘open’ that needs some undefined ‘reform’, after we’ve had the ‘open debate about immigration’ that we clearly haven’t been having and I’ve been hallucinating for the past couple of decades. There’s even a mention of ‘legitimate concerns’ in there, just in case you weren’t sure that they’re planning to spend more of their time pandering and dogwhistling to racists instead of listening to people who might want a truly open Britain.

So no, I won’t be signing up to support Open Britain because we don’t need an organisation that concedes half the ground its meant to be fighting for before the battle’s even begun. We’ve now got the bizarre situation where an organisation that was campaigning to stay in the EU just a couple of months ago is now taking a position against freedom of movement that wouldn’t even allow us to be part of the EEA. That the people who were supposedly running the campaign can change their position so easily and quickly in order to tack to the prevailing political winds is a good illustration of just why the Remain campaign failed to engage voters with a positive vision.

To me, Open Britain feels like another exploratory moment towards the aim of facilitating a centrist split from the Labour Party, rather than the pro-EU campaigning body we need. When Owen Smith and others have floated the idea of supporting restrictions to freedom of movement, it’s not hard to see that the idea of a ‘we’re not Tories but we’ll listen to your legitimate concerns’ party would be attractive to some. If they want to do it, that’s fine, but don’t pretend you’re being open to the world when you just want to pull up (sorry, ‘reform the operation of the lifting mechanism’) of the drawbridge.

United, more or less

moreunitedThere’s a new movement in British politics. As the name Nice (And Moderately Famous) People In Favour Of Good Things was considered too long, they instead chose More United as their title.

It’s an odd beast, talking about politics and policies in the same way that a nascent political party might, but then going out of its way to deny any claims that it might be a political party. In their own words:

MoreUnited.uk is doing something completely different in British politics.

We’re a tech-driven political startup created to give a voice to the millions of open, tolerant people in Britain who feel the political system doesn’t speak for them anymore.

Our aim is to enable people like you to participate in and change politics in a way that has never been possible before.

We’ll do this by using the power of the Internet to transform the way politics is funded, making it easier for moderate, progressive MPs to get elected and creating a new centre of political gravity in the UK.

Effectively, it’s an American PAC, yet operating in a system that doesn’t really have any provision for bodies like that. Anyway, it’s been up and running for a couple of days, so various people’s scepticism about it has already been aired – see Caron Lindsay or Andrew Hickey, for example.

There are definitely reasons to be wary of More United: its policy statements tend to the generic ‘progressive’ aim of ‘we want more nice things, and fewer bad things’, the way it’s going to work in practice seems vague, and there’s a bit too much ‘we’re doing it on the internet because everything done on the internet is better‘ including support for online voting for my liking.

And yet.

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Even before Brexit, the British political system was a mess. The main parties of left and right, both previously catch-all parties that sought to unite wide coalitions of ideology were collapsing under the weight of that task, while the centre of politics remained atomised, its main party crippled in the public opinion by its time in government. On top of, the UK was feeling the same stresses as every other 21st century nation-state, rendered increasingly powerless in the face of global forces that make the actions of a single country seem insignificant. ‘Take Control’ was a winning slogan for the Vote Leave campaign because so many people out there feel they have no control, and that there’s no way the political system as it is now can give them that control.

More United is a response to that feeling of powerlessness. It’s an attempt to give it a voice that isn’t coming from the extremes of the system and to channel it towards some form of moderation and centrism. Anti-politics (or anti-system politics) can take many forms, and they don’t all have to be revolutionary. Maybe there needs to be a movement for the people who ask ‘why can’t you all just get along?’ Whether this movement will be as unsuccessful as so many others that have come up over the past few decades – seriously, underpant gnomes of the left, your action plan needs to read more than ‘Step 1: Build a movement. Step 2: ????? Step 3: Utopia!’ – is something we can’t tell yet.

There is something in the response to More United that does concern me, and I think it’s connected to the current idea that we’re headed into an era of ‘post-truth’ politics, where people aren’t concerned with what’s actually true but rather with what they want to be true. I think there’s another spirit connected to that, which is a rejection of compromise in politics that eventually leads to the conclusion if you can’t get 100% of what you want, then you should just burn everything down and walk away.

Sadly, it’s a reaction I’ve seen amongst Liberal Democrats in recent weeks and months, when the prospect of how we might approach things like a split in the Labour Party or an organisation like More United is discussed. I see far too many arguments where a person’s line appears that unless someone is willing to accept all Liberal Democrat policy, we should refuse to even consider working with them. It feels as though all Labour members and MPs (even those elected in 2010 and after) should have to perform a mea maxima culpa to absolve themselves of the sins of Iraq and ID cards, while at the same time no Lib Dem should be held accountable for anything the Government did between 2010 and 2015 that wasn’t same-sex marriage, the Pupil Premium or raising tax allowances.

As I’ve argued before, professing equidistance from left and right and compromising with neither of them is a great way for liberals to pile up a piously pure stack of votes, but it does little for winning seats or any actual power. We can sit around and wait for everyone to agree with us like we’ve done for most of the last century (a strategy of, at best, occasional and partial success) or we can get out there and try and find common ground we can build on. If we’re so convinced that that liberal arguments are correct, then why fear working with others when we should be able to persuade them to our way of thinking? Sure, it can be fun to sit around in a small group indulging in the narcissism of small differences, but maybe we’d be better off engaging with those we seek to dismiss and trying to persuade them to work with us and perhaps even getting them to agree with us? If we’re so convinced that they might be wrong on something, why not try and persuade them of that, instead of declaring them beyond the pale?

Let’s be prepared to reach out and play a role in building the common ground, instead of standing on the sidelines and complaining that we weren’t included when someone else builds it without us. The old ways of doing politics are dying all around us, and we need to have the courage to try and shape the new.

So what am I thinking about today?

I’m thinking back to 1987, when I got the chance to go to West Berlin on a school trip. I can remember seeing the Berlin Wall, one side of it covered in defiantly hopeful graffiti, the other flanked by a massive literal dead zone of concrete and search towers. The Cold War was something that was part of our lives, the threat of nuclear annihilation something that hung over our heads, the idea that this wall might come crumbling down in under three years faintly ridiculous.

I’m thinking about going back to Berlin in 2012, where the dead zone had been filled with towers, where we spent a day exploring a market that filled the space where that dead zone had been. A continent that I’d grown up in expecting its future to only be devastating war had chosen peace, openness and trade instead.

I’m thinking about how we spent a day in Guben (Gunther Von Hagens’ Plastinarium is a fascinating place) and were casually able to stroll over the bridge across the Neisse into Poland and back again. No passports, no papers, no visas were needed.

Mostly, I’m thinking about my brother. In 1990, when the walls were crumbling and the fences were being torn down, he chose to go and live in France. Through a combination of luck and dedication he found himself a job at Eurosport, rising from ‘the guy who occasionallydoes the English voiceover for the news’ to a full-time producer, travelling the world to cover various sports and bring them to a channel that covered a continent.

It was in France that he fell ill, in France where his doctors diagnosed and treated a brain tumour, looking after him in exactly the same way as they did anyone else who lived there. It was in France where he got the all clear, then the news that it had returned, and it was in France that he died and was buried. But by then, France wasn’t the distant and exotic country it had seemed when I was growing up, it was a neighbour where I could travel from the North Station on my Colchester doorstep to the Gare du Nord in Paris with ease, where borders were just lines on a map.

I’m thinking that until this morning it never occurred to me to think that my brother’s resting place was in a foreign country, and that my right to go and visit it without restriction was something that could easily now disappear.

And I’m thinking: how will we explain this in the future? How will we explain how we went from a Europe divided by suspicion and paranoia to one of friendship, partnership and open borders in such a short time and then we decided ‘no, we don’t want that’? How will we explain that we were willing to give away so much because a bunch of demagogues let themselves believe that their political careers were more important than anything else? What are they going to think about us?

A question on Brexit and trade

s300_EiG_for_Gov.ukI’ve already explained why I’ll be voting Remain next Thursday, and nothing I’ve seen, heard or read over the last couple of months has changed my mind on that, but here’s a question about the arguments of the Leave side that I’ve not seen posed:

Which countries are you going to make better trade deals with, and why haven’t they spoken up?

It’s a recurrent mantra of the Leave campaign that if we were no longer members of the EU, we’d have the freedom to negotiate our own trade deals with other countries that would be better for Britain than our current ones. Surely, if this was to be the case, then other countries would be lining up to urge us to leave the EU and negotiate these deals with them?

Trade is a two-way process through which – if it’s conducted fairly – each side should benefit. So, if leaving the EU means we can negotiate better trade deals, then not only will Britain benefit but so will the countries we make these deals with. So, if we would benefit and they would benefit, why aren’t all these countries queuing up to urge us to vote to leave the EU? Why, instead, are the leaders of so many countries outside the EU urging us to remain in the EU?

Who are these countries that we’ll supposedly negotiate these better trade deals with, and why aren’t they speaking up now? Or do the Leave camapaign believe that we can get other countries to agree to deals that are worse for them but to the benefit of the UK? That might have worked a couple of hundred years ago, but I don’t think we can recreate the Empire, even if we were to leave the EU.

Four more years

It's on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.
It’s on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.
As I get older, I’m definitely not as good at recovering from late nights as I used to be, and Thursday was a very late night. By the time I got home from the election count it was almost 7am and I’d only had to walk across Kings Meadow from Leisure World. I don’t envy those who had to drive home after the overnight count in there, nor those who had to be back a few hours later for the Police and Crime Commissioner count. For those of you who weren’t there, you can see the official result by clicking here, but the important part is that I was re-elected with 881 votes, which put me in first place for Castle Ward.

Two days later, though, and my head’s returned enough to normal to start thinking about the next four years, though I have to admit that this wasn’t a scenario I envisaged during the election. Sure, I’d daydreamed about being the one to come top of the poll, but I’d expected that would mean Bill Frame and Jo Hayes would fill the next two spots, not two Tories. I’d like to take this opportunity thank Bill and Jo for all their hard work as councillors for Castle ward over the past few years during which they’ve both accomplished a lot for it, often in the face of some very hostile and personalised opposition. I do have some feelings of guilt at having squeezed them out, but that’s just something that will motivate me to work harder so the work they’ve done won’t go to waste.

My priority is going to be working hard to help the residents of Castle ward, just as it was the last time I represented them as their councillor. I’ve already got meetings filling up my diary, and have been busy reporting problems I spotted during the campaign and in the last couple of days. I am away on holiday soon, but when I’m back from that, I will be back out on the doorsteps again to keep talking to residents and finding out what problems you have and how I and the rest of the Liberal Democrat team can help. I’ve already reactivated and updated my councillor Twitter and Facebook pages, so please follow and like me to keep up with what I’m doing.

Even though I am just one councillor in the ward, there is a team around me, and we’re always looking for more people to join us. We’re always looking for new people to help with campaigning, to come up with ideas for how to improve the local area, the town and the country, or just to donate cashto keep the party running. We’re not a party who get millions of pounds in donations from big business or trade unions – we rely on our members and we’re run by and for our members, right down to every one of us having exactly the same power to make and change party policy.

You don’t have to be a party member to help me out, though. You can help by letting me know what’s going on in your part of the ward or what needs to happen to make things better, and by letting me know if there are any events you’d like me to be at as your councillor. I can’t promise to make it to every one, but I’ll do my best. If you do have some spare time and want to help while getting a bit of exercise, we always need volunteers to help deliver our Focus leaflets around the ward.

One thing the election result has shown me is the utter ridiculousness of our electoral system. In Castle Ward, there were 2442 votes cast for Liberal Democrats and 2414 cast for Tories, yet they got two councillors elected to one of ours. I’m more convinced than ever that England needs to follow the example of Scotland and Northern Ireland and elect councillors using the Single Transferable Vote system. It was interesting to note how many people I spoke to during the campaign expressed a wish to list the various candidates in order of preference, not just have the blunt instrument of crosses in a box. Colchester’s results aren’t even amongst the most ridiculously skewed in the country by the voting system – just look at Manchester, where John Leech is now the sole opposition councillor to 95 Labour councillors or the many tales of rotten boroughs the Electoral Reform Society have collected.

But electoral reform is something for the future, as it’s highly unlikely to be delivered under this Government. For now, the main priority for me is to work hard for the residents of Castle Ward and repay the trust they showed in me by placing me first. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, then you can follow my councillor account on Twitter, or like my Facebook page where I’ll be doing my best to keep you all updated. I’ll share my councillor email address as soon as I find out what it is!

Once again, I just want to thank everyone who voted for me and everyone who helped to get me elected this week. I’ve now got a lot of work to do to show you your trust in me was well placed.

Back, but in a bittersweet victory

IMAG0652Sometime around 4am on Friday morning, I was declared elected as a councillor for Castle Ward, and not only that I’d got the most votes of all twelve candidates and topped the poll. You can see the full results by clicking here (pdf file). Sadly, my colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes weren’t also elected, with two Conservatives filling second and third places.

I’ll write more over the weekend when I’ve had some more sleep and returned to something that feels more normal, but for now I just wanted to thank everyone in Castle Ward who voted for me and I hope I can reward your trust in me over the next four years.

It’s polling day…

clocktowerAfter all these weeks of campaigning, I can give you news of one confirmed loss from this election campaign – several pounds of weight from me. The election diet plan has had a very positive effect on me over the past few weeks, and there’s definitely less of me than there was in March.

That’s what happens when you spend lots of time either out knocking on doors or delivering leaflets, especially in a ward where it’s much easier to get about on foot or on a bike than it is by car. I’ve knocked on over a thousand doors, spoken to hundreds of people and delivered thousands of leaflets during this campaign, all of which meant that taking a day off from it to walk 14 miles wasn’t too much of a hassle.

Overall, it’s been a great experience to get out on the election trail again. It’s been good to talk to the residents of Castle Ward and find out what they want from their Council and to explain how we as a Liberal Democrat team can help to deliver them. Obviously, not everyone was in agreement with me, but if I am elected tomorrow, I will do as I did before and seek to represent all the residents of the ward as best as I can.

I’m still standing for the aims and values I wrote about at the start of the campaign and the last few weeks have shown me that this is the approach Castle ward and Colchester needs.

I also want to do my part in making Colchester a better place for everyone and carry on some of the work I was doing before. It’s about working on big things like the funding we got for the Castle, or the recent investment in the Mercury renovation but also the small things like improving on street parking in various streets, making waste collection more effective or just helping residents have their views heard on planning and licensing applications.

I’m standing again because I think Colchester needs a Liberal Democrat council to stand up to the cuts being imposed on us from central government, and to ensure that decisions about Colchester are made here in Colchester, not handed over to Essex County Council. We need a council in Colchester that invests in local services, not one that seeks to cut them or sell them off. Colchester is a great town at the heart of a great borough, and a Liberal Democrat-run council can keep improving it, creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone. I want to be part of that again, making sure that Castle Ward and its residents are fully represented and supported.

If you live in Castle Ward, then please vote for me and my colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes today. Indeed, if you’re anywhere in the UK there are elections going on today, so please go out and vote so your voice can be heard. Even if you don’t like any of the candidates, use the opportunity to tell them why.

The votes are being counted overnight tomorrow, so we should know the result sometime around dawn on Friday. Whatever the result, it’s been an interesting time but I am looking forward to catching up on sleep and TV at the weekend.

And then we all have the European referendum campaign to occupy our time for the next seven weeks – who knows how much weight I might lose during that?

Why I’m stepping back up and standing for council again

clocktowerLast year, I didn’t stand for re-election to Colchester Borough Council having represented Castle Ward for eight years. (I wrote about the reasons why I wasn’t standing again here) Since then, I’ve had lots of people asking me if I would stand again in the future, and following lots of requests from many different people, I have decided to stand again this year.

So what changed my mind and got me to put my hat back in the ring this year? For a start, my situation has changed and a lot of the things that were causing me to be under a lot of stress and pressure aren’t there any more. Being a councillor is never going to be an easy role, but it’s a lot simpler to do when there’s not a lot of other stress distracting you from it. Taking a break from being a councillor was something I needed to do last year, and that time away from the council has given me time to think more widely about things and look at some bigger issues in politics. (You can probably tell that if you’ve been reading the blog for the past year or so)

On top of that, I realised that I did miss being a councillor. Yes, there’s stress but there’s also the victories (small and large) you can achieve for the people you represent when you are one. It means that when you see something wrong and think ‘someone needs to do something about that’, you can actually do something about it, and also help other people to get the things they want done as well.

I also want to do my part in making Colchester a better place for everyone and carry on some of the work I was doing before. It’s about working on big things like the funding we got for the Castle, or the recent investment in the Mercury renovation but also the small things like improving on street parking in various streets, making waste collection more effective or just helping residents have their views heard on planning and licensing applications.

I’m standing again because I think Colchester needs a Liberal Democrat council to stand up to the cuts being imposed on us from central government, and to ensure that decisions about Colchester are made here in Colchester, not handed over to Essex County Council. We need a council in Colchester that invests in local services, not one that seeks to cut them or sell them off. Colchester is a great town at the heart of a great borough, and a Liberal Democrat-run council can keep improving it, creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone. I want to be part of that again, making sure that Castle Ward and its residents are fully represented and supported.

And this time next month we’ll see if the voters want to put me back on the council. In the end it’s their decision.

Walking for charity again

Pier-to-pier-website-bannerOn April 17th, I’m going to be taking part in St Helena Hospice’s Pier to Pier walk, going from Walton Pier to Clacton Pier and back again. I’m doing this to help raise money for the hospice in memory of my friend and colleague Martin Hunt, who spent time at the hospice before his death last year.

If you want to sponsor me, I’ve set up a Justgiving page where you can do it directly online, or if you can’t use Justgiving, then please get in touch with me and we’ll arrange some other method.

It should be a nice day out (providing there are no massive spring storms coming in from the North Sea that day) so please come along to show support for me and all the other walkers doing it – there’s lots of fun to be had on the piers while you’re waiting for the walkers to reappear. I chose Walton for my start and finish because there’s a very good chip shop not far from the pier, and fish and chips on the beach is a great way to relax and enjoy yourself at the end of a walk.

You can sponsor me by clicking here, or if you want to take part yourself, there’s more information and a registration form on the hospice’s website. If you really want to help, keep your fingers crossed for good weather on the 17th!

Has Michael Gove been reading The Dictator’s Handbook?

dictatorshandbookSomething often seen in corrupt and autocratic regimes is a system that resembles democracy but is subject to an element of social coercion to ensure that the results of supposedly free votes help to maintain the existing order. As I discussed here before, there’s a whole field in international relations that discusses the idea of the selectorate theory, and how autocratic regimes use the distribution of public and private goods to reward their supporters and keep them loyal. The public might be presented with a choice of parties that they can back at elections, but they’ll be reminded that only by voting the right way can they ensure that they’ll get their share of government resources. They can vote for the opposition parties and not be directly punished for it, but the rewards for complying with the government will go elsewhere. (There’s a lot more detail and examples of this in The Dictator’s Handbook

Of course, that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen in proper democracies like Britain. Here, people are encouraged to vote for whoever they want, safe in the knowledge that the governing party won’t seek to reward those who vote for them and punish those who don’t.

It’d be nice if someone told Michael Gove that, though. He was in Colchester last week and spoke to the local paper. During his interview he said:

Colchester is growing dramatically and needs investment in its infrastructure.

A Conservative council will be able to make that case and will always get a sympathetic hearing.

The implication is quite clear – the borough needs things, but needs to have a Conservative council to get ‘a sympathetic hearing’ if it wants to actually get them. This is the politics of the protection racket, a warning to vote the right way if you want to get things. It’s not surprising that Conservatives think this way – I’ve seen too much of them in operation to be shocked – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a member of the Cabinet make a statement like that.

It’s the ultimate end point of the Conservative vision of localism, where you’re free locally to tell the Government just how much you agree with them, and they’ll reward you for the level of enthusiasm you show. It does a good job of looking like democracy on the surface, but it’s a pretty long way from it underneath.